External Affairs

Trump Endorses India Ties With Gusto, Joint Statement Takes Shot at China’s OBOR

Superlatives flow as do the hugs, while the joint statement’s references to Pakistan, China and North Korea show greater India-US convergence at the strategic level.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as he departures the White House after a visit, in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

Washington: President Donald Trump welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the White House with a ringing endorsement of the India-US strategic partnership, saying he was a “true friend” of India and the strategic relationship between the two democracies was “incredibly important.”

The joint statement issued by the two sides soon afterwards was shorter than earlier bilateral ones but used unusually direct language aimed at anchoring the relationship between India and the United States in a common approach towards China – and the issues its initiatives and policies have raised across the Indo-Pacific region – as well as Pakistan, which, the two leaders said, must get with the programme as far as shutting down the activities of terrorist groups on its soil is concerned.

Superlatives flowed freely as did the bright afternoon sun over the Rose Garden where both leaders spoke to an audience of senior officials and reporters after their meeting ended. Though the US side had proposed that US and Indian reporters be allowed one question each, the Indian prime minister’s unwillingness to address press conferences where the press asks questions meant Monday’s ‘media interaction’ was confined to the statements the two leaders made, and the hugs they exchanged.

Trump called India a “very, very incredible nation” and said he was thrilled to “salute” its people. “Our ties have never been stronger, never been better,” he said.

The statement from Trump went a long distance to dispel doubts that the relationship was floundering or drifting.

But Trump also played to his political base and the nationalist camp in the White House. He made sure to mention the need for “fair and reciprocal trade” and asked that trade barriers be removed and steps be taken to reduce the US trade deficit with India, which is around $30 billion – a low figure compared to China, but an irritant nonetheless.

This was the only note of dissonance in the love fest that unfolded Monday in the White House. But Trump immediately made amends, as it were, by mentioning that an Indian airline had placed an order for 100 new planes with a US company which will support “thousands and thousands of jobs.”

His reference was to Spice Jet’s recently announced plans to buy new planes from Boeing.

Trump’s was one of the strongest pro-India statements to come from an American president in recent history where there has never been a shortage of hyperbole in describing relations.

Defeating terrorism, where a near complete convergence of views was expected, was a key point for bonding. “We are both determined to destroy radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump declared from the podium as Modi watched.

The US side showed up in strength and most of the top cabinet members were seated in the front row led by Vice President Mike Pence and First Lady Melania Trump. The surprise of the joint appearance was an announcement that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, will attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit to be held in India soon.

Modi said he was eager to welcome Ivanka, who was seated in the audience along with her husband, key Trump adviser Jared Kushner.

The prime minister, returning the favour with equally flowery language, said that this journey and the discussions would be one of the “most important pages” in the history of bilateral cooperation.

He went to list the reasons: the talks were based on mutual trust, both countries share the same values, fears and because both India and the US are prime engines of “global growth.”

Modi’s speech said the strategic partnership would reach “new heights” and the drivers would be productivity, growth, job creation and breakthrough technologies. “I am convinced that a strong and successful America benefits India. Similarly, India’s development and its increasing role on the world stage is good for America,” he said.

He invited Trump and his family to visit India.

Arrival at White House

When Modi arrived at the White House, he was greeted not just by Trump but also Melania, as is the usual US tradition. After Modi alighted, he shook hands with both of them – and even shared a joke on which the two leaders laughed.

They then went inside the Oval Room, where Modi recounted how Trump had said “very nice things” about him during a India visit in 2014.

“Even before he began the campaign to be US President, when he came to India in 2014 and was asked about me by the media, he said very nice things about me. That’s something I will always remember through my life,” said Modi in Hindi.

He said that the way the first couple welcomed him, “shows their respect not for me but for 125 crore Indians”.

Trump pointed out that he had been “reading about [Modi]”. “He is doing a great job. Economically, India is doing very well and in so many other ways. I would like to congratulate him for this,” he said.

Later, when the two delegations sat down together in the cabinet room at the White House for talks, Trump added, “Thank you very much for ordering equipment from the US. Makes us feel very good and there’s no one who makes military equip[ment] like us”. He was referring to the prospective purchase by India of 22 Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems by India.